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Twitter Has a Short-Term Periscope Problem. And a Long-Term Media Mess.

Twitter is a media company that says it's not a media company. That's fine until it isn't.

Mark Damon / Las Vegas News Bureau
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Here are three good questions to ask in the wake of this weekend, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. beat Manny Pacquiao and Twitter found itself irking some of the big media companies it wants to befriend:

  • Is Dick Costolo an idiot who endorsed piracy and intentionally thumbed his nose at HBO, Showtime and the rest of Hollywood?
  • Does Periscope, Twitter’s livestreaming app, have the makings of a piracy problem?
  • Does Twitter have the makings of a long-term problem with its media partners?

And here are the tl;dr answers:

  • Nope.
  • Could be. But it’s a solvable problem.
  • Probably.

Longer version:

In retrospect the Twitter CEO, who is a smart person, probably wishes he hadn’t declared Periscope the “winner” of Saturday night’s fight. Because at the same time he was tweeting that, many people were noticing that, if you wanted to, you could see Periscope streams, of varying quality and duration, of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. For free. Instead of paying HBO and Showtime $90 to watch the same thing on your TV.

But at the same time, it seems pretty easy to imagine what Costolo meant, since in the last few years he has become the guy who works very hard at staying on message. And that message is: We want to work with media companies, and specifically TV companies, to make their product more valuable. We come in peace.

So I’m pretty sure he was suggesting that Periscope was a fun way to augment the broadcast of the fight, with commentary from friends, fighters or whomever — not as a way to replace the broadcast.

And in fact, that’s exactly what HBO did in the run-up to the fight, when its HBO Boxing account Periscoped from Pacquiao’s locker room.

If you’re still not convinced, you might ask Chris Sacca, the Twitter investor who often acts as a freelance Costolo proxy in public. Via Twitter, he called out other Periscope users he thought made for fun fight follows:

That said, it is indeed easy to use Periscope to stream things you shouldn’t stream, including streams that violate copyright. Like “Game of Thrones” broadcasts or live prizefights.

It is hard to imagine that most of these scenarios cause real problems for the copyright owners, since watching “Game of Thrones” on Periscope is a pretty lousy experience, even by pirate standards.

But it’s reasonable for people who host live events, like prizefights or award shows, to worry that Periscope could be an irritant, since even a sporadic livestream may be better than nothing. I can’t imagine that many people chose not to pay for Mayweather-Pacquiao and relied on Periscope instead. But you could, which is enough to raise eyebrows, maybe more, of people who work at HBO, Showtime and other parts of the entertainment world.

Unlike YouTube, which over many years has worked out a technical and legal solution to this kind of thing — courts have given the site broad leeway to let users upload whatever they want, as long as YouTube responds to copyright complaints when it gets them; a “Content ID” system helps automate the process — Twitter and Periscope aren’t ready for this yet.

There doesn’t seem to be a way to “fingerprint” a livestream of a broadcast in order to generate an automated takedown, the way YouTube does for broadcasts after they’re on. So right now Twitter and Periscope, and copyright owners who see their stuff streaming on Periscope, are relying on human-powered takedowns.

Periscope’s team said that on Saturday night it received 66 reports from copyright owners and shut down 30 offending streams. It says the other ones were gone before they got there, and that in every case it responded “within minutes.” But that’s still whack-a-mole, and it won’t be fast enough to placate the TV guys at other big events.

Perhaps Twitter, which employs many smart people, will be able to put together a system that eventually works like YouTube’s and allows copyright owners to automatically create takedowns. Perhaps it could work even faster than YouTube’s, since things would have to move more quickly to shut down a real-time stream.

But Twitter will also want to make sure to not shut down legitimate streams and choke off the whole point of the app. Twitter lets you blab about stuff you see on TV in real time. I’m sure it hopes Periscope can do the same.

In the meantime, here’s a peanut gallery suggestion: Why not plan ahead and try to make it harder for Periscope users to find livestreams for very big events, like prizefights and “Game of Thrones” premieres? If Twitter had made a point of muting search terms like “Mayweather” on Saturday night, it wouldn’t stamp out piracy, but it might make it harder to capitalize on it.

Regardless of how Twitter resolves its Periscope problem, it has a bigger issue to solve: No matter how hard it tries to deny it, Twitter is a media company. And the bigger Twitter gets, the more likely that its media partners — the ones it wants to buy advertising and provide Twitter with engaging content — will eventually see it as competition.

This has been an ongoing problem for Twitter to navigate for many years, and for the most part it has threaded the needle. It has been able to tell ESPN, for instance, that just because people can get sports scores from Twitter — often faster than they can from ESPN’s own sites and apps — Twitter can still provide value to ESPN by steering Twitter users to ESPN to see deeper coverage.

But that was easier to do back when Twitter was primarily a text service. Over time, though, it has been turning itself into a multimedia broadcaster, as it has added pictures, video and music to its arsenal, all in the hope of giving users a reason to stick around, and to come back. Now it has added live video — the last advantage the TV guys think they have over the digital disruptors.

So if Twitter becomes a place to watch live TV — either via pirated streams or a new version of TV that users make themselves — then what will Twitter tell the TV guys? And will they wait around to find out?

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